Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Sweating on the Small Stuff: The Materiality of Form in Faulkner's as I Lay Dying

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Sweating on the Small Stuff: The Materiality of Form in Faulkner's as I Lay Dying

Article excerpt

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The arguments that follow derive from a pair of linked assumptions. This is the first: that reading the "small stuff" in Faulkner is vital in contending profitably with the massifications to which his formalism begrudgingly refers. And this the second: that any attempt to read the "small stuff" in Faulkner demands that new modes of reading-new formalisms-be unearthed. This essay offers a first articulation of such an effort. In it, I mobilize a dialectically predisposed mode of close reading, one attentive to the materiality of the sign in its smallest workings. Presently, literary formalism occupies an awkward, not entirely assured, position in critical scholarship, considered "old" in privileging textuality yet impatiently "new" in disavowing stable, totalizing -isms. Caroline Levines Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network enunciates a recent turn to formalist praxis. For Levine, forms are epistemologically capacious; as mobile sites of change, forms mutate and shift, exceeding the disciplinary limits of literary discourse. Forms are plastic but, for Levine, essentially shallow; "[c]lose, but not deep" bounds the methodological approach of this emergent formalism (Levine 23).1 Levines suspicion of "deep meaning"-that is, meaning understood as the material residue of ideology's workings-gives coloration to the new formalism: politics doesn't structure form, politics is form. The present work kicks back against these assumptions. It seeks, in fact, to rehabilitate the new formalism, providing a firm steer away from poststructuralist reefs and the arbitrarily decentred modes of reading that its organisms ultimately infer. Unlike Levine, who downgrades the potentiality of forms-say capital, self, race, nation-as constitutive and organizing, I take their compulsions entirely seriously, exploring the force with which textual forms-as political, dialectically predisposed units-both contain and bear down upon their subjects. The present work sets out to challenge, duly "rerouting" (18) in Levine's idiom, the tendency within the new formalist paradigm to privilege contingency over the (indeed deep) imperatives of an ideological apparatus that, to my mind at least, leaves nothing to chance. This is not to say that forms cannot-or should not-be broken down, restructured, incapacitated. Indeed, politicized resistance to the boundedness of the forms that oppress us-be they economic, national, racial, technological, sexual, consti tutional, professional-materializes, and materializes to our profit, in the lifeworld of contemporary society as much as it materializes in the modernisms of William Faulkner. But, as often in Faulkner as in anywhere else, concerted efforts at political restructuring are, in the Althusserian sense, always-already catered for, anticipated, and becalmed. Indeed, for Faulkner narrative form- as we shall see presently-"folds" its politics back-into-itself, reestablishing through new forms the legitimacy of the old. And in Faulkner, as in anywhere else, these forms, hypostasized by a dialectic of renovation and recapitulation, will not merely endure: they will prevail.

Counter to Levinian formalism, this essay reads close and deep. Its assumptions are structured by a conviction that the bounded, oppressive workings of political "forms"-say capital, self, race, nation-can be understood, in Faulkner, at the level of the word. Less a rebuke of the politics of form than an exploration of how forms, as political events, clash and cross, this essay "gets to" the big stuff by privileging the small. Of all the small forms that proliferate in Faulkner, it is the pronoun, I will claim, that shoulders principal semantic weighting. Read closely and deeply, pronouns might be understood as forms within forms, as "works in miniature," to "reroute" Paul Ricoeurs lithe description of metaphor ("Metaphor" 97). A full case for the pronoun as a semantically generative unit of meaning across Faulkner exceeds the limits of the present work. …

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